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Boston's new look

A city is like a bowl of spaghetti...
A city is only as alive as its pigeons...
Ah, Christ.
A city is a blank page.
Hmmm. Not a blank page.

A city is a book. Boston is a book. Its people are words - verbs, adjectives, and sometimes exclamations: ugh! and wow! Its buildings are punctuation marks. Its streets are sentences, its neighborhoods paragraphs. Massachusetts is the bookshelf upon which the book sits and New England is the library in which the bookshelf stands. And America, well, America is the street upon which the library is located, which I guess makes America a sentence...

No, no, no.

Boston is not a bowl of spaghetti or a book. Nor is it a rich tapestry or a melting pot. It is not an abstraction or a metaphor or a symbol. To think of the city in these terms is to deny the fact that it often takes 45 minutes to get from Harvard Square to the Fenway in the morning. Boston is a solid, physical thing. Kick it and your toe will hurt.

It is too easy to think of one's hometown as an ideal - particularly when one's hometown happens to be Boston. The Athens of America. The Hub of the Universe. The birthplace of the Revolution. Maybe Boston is all these things, but it's also the place where we eat lunch, watch movies, have drinks, and stroll around on sunny Sunday afternoons. The city's much-touted history should not obscure what the Germans call Liebenswelt - the here-and-now.

Yes, Boston has its great academic and cultural institutions. It has spawned its Longfellows and its Lowells, its Pinkers and its Pinskys, its Sargents and its Ozawas. But it's the bricks-and-mortar edifices of Symphony Hall, MIT, and the Gardner Museum that make this town such a great place to just be. John Hancock was a great man, true, but what has he done for us lately? Take a look at the Hancock Tower, though - that immense window into another sky - and your life will be made richer. And yet, on any given day, those of us who make our way through Copley Square will have our heads down, too busy scurrying toward Finagle a Bagel to take stock of the Hancock, Trinity Church, or the Boston Public Library.

For the long-time resident, a city's immediate charms are obliterated less by cultural history than by a personal one. The blue-green idyll of the Esplanade is reduced to a hundred messy traffic jams. The serene splendor of Harvard Yard is obscured by the gaggles of students who choke up our streets and restaurants every autumn. The State House calls to mind the irritating fumbles of local government - not that slightly odd blend of neoclassical and colonial architecture that sits atop Beacon Hill like a big gold tooth. Newbury Street is the place we once got dumped. Marlborough Street is where we got a $20 parking ticket. All too often, we are so wrapped up in the familiarity of it all that we fail to appreciate the city for what it is.

So maybe there is one thing: Boston is like a long-time lover.

In relationships, familiarity does not so much breed contempt as it does a kind of inattention. The way the light hit your lover's eyes the first night you met is lost beneath the drift of intervening days. The squabbles and plans, the toothpaste caps left off and kitchen lights left on - you become so wrapped up in the everyday that you lose sight of the person you fell in love with. The same thing happens to the city dweller. You lose the ability to look.

And yes, in case you hadn't noticed, Boston is a dreamboat, a stunner.

Someone once said that the object of travel is not to make the strange familiar but the familiar strange. It could be that we simply need to become tourists in our own town - if only for a short while. Look at the Custom House - what a big clock it is! Look at the way the willows stroke the surface of Swan Pond. Look at the cobblestone warren of Charlestown, the serpentine skyline of the Back Bay. And look at the way the boats come bobbing into Boston Harbor as the sun goes down. It's gorgeous, and it's ours. Sometimes you need to view the familiar through a stranger's eyes. Only then will you fall in love again.

Chris Wright can be reached at

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